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How Should We Think About History?

December 12, 2014

by J. Andrew Zalucky


My current reading itinerary, along with my addiction to both Dan Carlin’s incredible Hardcore History podcast and the cheeky CrashCourse History series has me doing a lot of thinking. This article isn’t meant to be one comprehensive expression of a worldview, just a series of observations. I hope you find it thought-provoking.

When people look at world events, they often forget the long historical trends that precede them. They often think of history as a series of short stories and vignettes. Some themes or recurring characters may appear, but each chapter is distinct from its predecessor.

This is a mistake.

Consider this: the oldest person alive today was born when William McKinley was President of the United States. Still more where alive to witness the end of the First World War, the beginning of the Depression, Spain in the 1930s, Kristallnacht, Pearl Harbor, Auschwitz, Nuremberg, Budapest 1956, Prague 1968 and so on. Some of the oldest people alive today could have spoken to, or where mentored by others who witnessed Reconstruction, the birth of Germany and Italy as modern states, the Dreyfus affair, and the Spanish-American War.

This produces a narrative of experience and influence passed on through generations. Think of how memes pass through the internet today and transfer that to social relations.

As narrative memes are shared among common people, they shape the superstructure of mass culture and world politics above them. When you look up the history of Russia since the end of the Cold War, it’s said that the Russian Federation has inherited the “diplomatic personality” of the USSR. What does this mean? Nothing in the abstract. But from a practical standpoint it signifies a continuity of interests (e.g. territorial, economic). I certainly don’t mean to say that “things never change.” Far from it. But while most of the world has moved on from the old model of nations, one where the land was the sole property of a monarch or a landed aristocracy, this doesn’t mean that the interests at stake suddenly vanished. As I noted in my article on geography, everyone loves to forget this and focuses myopically on the day-to-day details of events, as if they occur isolated from history.

The other mistake people make, rather than just being ignorant of history altogether, is to point to the wrong events. If I had a dollar for every time a neoconservative referenced the Munich Agreement of 1938 whenever a President decides not to bomb a country we’re not at war with, I could probably buy The Weekly Standard myself.

In one of his lectures on history, Hegel once said that “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” One could fault Hegel for a number of things, but modern readers would do well to keep this point in mind. While his view of history as the process of generating human freedom looks very plausible when considering the recent history of the west – this does not mean that progress is a preordained guarantee.

Francis Fukuyama, writing in 1989 as the Cold War drew to a close, noted that even though we may be reaching the “End of History:”

This does not by any means imply the end of international conflict per se. For the world at that point would be divided between a part that was historical and a part that was post historical. Conflict between states still in history, and between those states and those at the end of history, would still be possible. There would still be a high and perhaps rising level of ethic and nationalist violence, since those are impulses incompletely played out, even in parts of he post historical world. Palestinians and Kurds, Sikhs and Tamils, Irish Catholics and Walloons, Armenians and Azeris, will continue to have their unresolved grievances. This implies that terrorism and wars of national liberation will continue to be an important item on the international agenda.


It’s doubly interesting to hear this from Fukuyama, who posited that, aside from economic security and other mundane concerns, there wouldn’t be much left to fight over. This didn’t play out exactly as planned, as George Will noted after the September 11th attacks, that “history had returned from vacation.” This wasn’t really being fair to Fukuyama, but you get the idea.

I shouldn’t have to remind the reader that we’ve just passed the centennial of the First World War, both a warning and a reassurance from history. Some historians will offer caution here, remarking on the long peace between 1871 and 1914 that tricked Europe into thinking it had reached…well, the end of history. But I would actually dispute the events in Sarajevo and The Marne being the death of 19th century liberal optimism. In a way, much of the bloodshed was able to occur because of the absolutism that reigned in Germany, Russia, Austria and elsewhere – not because of a perceived weakness in classical liberalism. If recent events in the Crimea and the Donbass took place in the world of 1914, the conflict would have been much more widespread.

However, perhaps some caution is merited. After all, it was George Orwell who, when considering the appeal of Adolf Hitler and of Fascism more broadly said that

Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet

For this and other reasons, we should be careful not to leap too far into idealistic and teleological views of history. It is one thing to examine long-term historical trends. It is another to assign individual intentions and the concept of an ultimate destiny to those trends. It’s hard enough to analyze the past. Trying to conduct “predictive analytics” for the future may be even a fool’s errand.

Or perhaps something worse. In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper was ferocious towards a general theory of history

There is no history of mankind, there is only an indefinite number of histories of all kinds of aspects of human life. And one of these is the history of political power. This is elevated into the history of the world. But this, I hold, is an offence against every decent conception of mankind. It is hardly better than to treat the history of embezzlement or of robbery or of poisoning as the history of mankind. For the history of power politics is nothing but the history of international crime and mass murder (including it is true, some of the attempts to suppress them). This history is taught in schools, and some of the greatest criminals are extolled as heroes.

So…how should we look at history? It depends on who you ask, and when you start the clock. If you start it from 2001 to now, things look rather tenuous at best. But if you start it from 1945, maybe it’s not so bad. Though it’s not perfect. We haven’t had another Hiroshima or Treblinka. But we’ve had Rwanda and Srebrenica.

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